February 6, 2023

In Nigeria and the rest of Africa, farmers and food producers have recognised the opportunities offered by drone-based systems. Drones, known as unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), now provide farmers with real-time, actionable data on their land, crop and livestock to help maximise input efficiency, minimise environmental impacts/risks, and optimise produce quality. DANIEL ESSIET reports.

The race is on to drive digitalisation to enable farmers to get the best out of their fields. One of those on this campaign is the President, Beat Drone, Odionye Confidence. He conducts drone-based planting and spraying on behalf of local farmers. He is among the growing number of drone operators serving farmers, and helping them to seed, spread and spray pesticides. With drones, he delivers high-resolution images from every corner of farm fields, controls weeds, fungal diseases, and pests.

He said: “Beat Drone provides drones which assist farmers in spraying chemicals for weeding, spraying liquid fertiliser, mapping farms; the map makes it possible for small holder farmers to access finances from the government, co-operatives and the banks; we also aid the financial institution track the funds on input for the farmers while also providing detailed crop health information to advice the farmer on the health needs of the crops. To date we have provided services to Dangote, Olam, Flourmills of Nigeria, Ho corn among others across, Niger, Sokoto, Adamawa, Nassarawa, Oyo and 15 other states in Nigeria.”

He travels with drones to many fields. The Beat Drone team came together in 2016, with Confidence joined by co-founder Yinka Ojomo.

Confidence and other tech-savvy young people have brought farm drones to help farmers boost productivity and profits. With drones, he can map out how the soil will be prepared for sowing, which crop variety to be planted, and what fertiliser and crop protection products have been deployed. The information provided through drone based survey is the roadmap for a successful harvest. Before large scale farms and plantations spread thousands of hectares in size across the continent, spray crops by helicopters. But it was too expensive for many farmers to afford.

Amid rising farm input costs, corporate organisations owning large hectares are now using drones to spread fertiliser and pesticides, forging a new path to increase outputs. Now, there are drone services providers offering plant protection. Thanks to the increasingly prospering market of UAV and farmers’ gradual acceptance of new technology. As drones have been adopted into Nigeria’s agricultural production, a new career has opened up to young people, to become drone pilots.

Though he has relocated, Asia-based agri technologist, Ndubuisi Eze, is still riding the wave of agriculture revolution he initiated in the North, using drones on hundreds and thousands of hectares of farm fields. He deployed drones to explore business models for mechanisation of farming in Northeast.  Indeed, drones have simplified crop planting for farmers, in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

Known as the flying farmer, the founder, Integrated Aerial Precision, Femi Adekoya, has been working with farmers to deploy drones to map land, report crop health, analyse soil, improve spraying accuracy, and locate livestock, among others. He had recognised the value of using technology to improve crop yields. Today, his company provides farmers with precision crop protection solutions.

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As a drone pilot, he has harnessed technology to make a good fortune in the sector. With his drones, his teams help farmers finish the fieldwork much faster and easier. The introduction of drone has attracted the youth to agriculture and provides a business opportunity. As the drone gains more attention in Nigeria, the number of farmers using drone for autonomous operations is increasing.

Adekoya has been working with local businesses to meet the rapidly increasing demand for drone spraying service. He wants farmers to appreciate the benefits of using drones in terms of efficiency, precision, and cost-saving. As in the rest of the world, drones are used in various areas of agriculture in Nigeria.

Analysts believe with significant growth, drone market holds opportunities for big agro firms in search of accuracy in data collection and for firms which want to provide farmers with intelligent tools to feed the world. Another group promoting drones in agriculture in Nigeria is Flying Labs.  An international social enterprise, it is dedicated to promoting the use of robotics and automation skills for the betterment of the society.

The organisation has trained UAV pilots, whose skills will be used to boost productivity across the continent.

Generally, individual Flying Labs are coordinated by local not-for-profit organisations, local companies and/or academic institutions.

In Nigeria, Flying Labs South West Hub has been applying their expertise in drones, drone data, and geographic information systems (GIS) to empower local businesses and small holder farmers. The team has trained youths in smart farming techniques and drone technology.

Outside Nigeria, more startups are excited that the possibilities of putting drones to work on the farms are skyrocketing as they help farmers to obtain powerful insights into crop performance and elevate their agricultural efficiency.  In Senegal, Agtech startup is leading the homegrown pack. The startup uses a combination of drones, robotics, sensors, and predictive analytics to provide farmers with nearly real-time data so they can maximise crop yields.

In Senegal, climate change could result in more droughts, flooding and extreme temperatures. As such farmers need to turn to digital technology to get accurate, timely data they can act on quickly.

The use of drones in farming is rising steeply. Tolbi is raising $500,000 this year to develop its activity. Founded by Mouhamadou Lamine Kébé, a graduate of the Dakar Polytechnic School in 2019, with three of his classmates to tackle the water management problems experienced by Senegalese farmers, Tolbi offers a set of connected objects based on artificial intelligence and edge computing to facilitate field irrigation and improve agricultural yield.

The strong impact Tolbi has on agriculture has earned it several awards including the Grand Prix of the President of the Republic for Digital Innovation in 2020. The startup aims to become a leader in smart agriculture in Africa. Next year, it plans to enter Nigeria, Kenya, Algeria, and Morocco.

Apart from Senegal, agritech startups have been using drones to ignite a big change in Morocco’s agriculture. Startups develop drones for soil analysis, crop monitoring, irrigation, spraying, field mapping, among others. At present, a few startups have achieved so much using drones to boost precision farming through aerial application.

From remote sensing drone to unmanned ground vehicle, Moroccan startup SOWIT has developed products that can be applied on farm to yield a bright future.

SOWIT offers digital solutions that enable farmers to preserve irrigation water and fertiliser needs for a range of major crops on the continent such as cereals, maize, sugar cane, and citrus.

Founded in 2017, SOWIT has offices in France, Morocco and Senegal. SOWIT was founded by Hamza Rkha Chaham and Hamza Bendahou, two individuals passionate about using technology to help fulfill Africa’s great agricultural potential. The agri-tech start-up has helped African farmers in 15 countries optimise their crop yields. The startup uses precise images captured by drones, supported by algorithms, to help farmers assess water and input needs and determine ideal harvesting times.

The company is rapidly expanding the use of agricultural drones through tie-ups with companies in Nigeria, Morocco and East Africa.

Following SOWIT’s success in Africa, the use of drones for precision agriculture is gaining momentum. The startup has used UAVs to transform how agriculture is done.

Co-founder, SOWIT, Hamza Rkha Chaham, has been involved in activities to empower farmers to use drones to monitor and spray their fields precisely and rapidly. In September this year, SOWIT signed a partnership agreement with Morocco’s Banque Centrale Populaire (BCP) to provide farmers in the Beni Mellal-Khenifra region with access to innovative diagnostic and monitoring solutions for sustainable and effective farm management.

He is not alone. Moroccan Aerospace Institute has demonstrated how farmers can benefit by using drones and other tools of precision farming technology to monitor the health of crops, estimate soil conditions, plant future crops, fight infections and pests. The institute co-founder, Mohamed Belkora, launched startup, Korair, because of his passion for agri-tech.

With drones, farmers are supported in crop spraying. The company manufactures drones, which can outreach more than 30 hectares of farmland a day. The technology disperses very small droplets (0.2 micrometers) of insecticide liquid spray, making it easier for the plants to absorb the pesticides.

In recent years, Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UMP6), based in Ben Guerir, Morocco has been directing its research towards improving smart farming, an initiative to accelerate the incorporation of data processing and technology to optimise cultivation.

UM6P’s Smart Farming unit is a multifaceted innovation lab utilising diverse modes of technology to optimize the yield.

One of the  university’s innovation hubs is an experimental farm. The centre specialises in so-called smart farming – harnessing technology and data processing to improve cultivation.

Aerodrive Engineering Services is one of the hub’s startups. It provides consulting services to farmers, using drones to detect pest insects, nutrient deficiencies or water stress.

Within the lab, Aerodrive Engineering Services is harnessing drone technology to improve cultivation.  Using drones, the startup harvests data by scanning soil. It then uses the compiled data to offer feedback to farmers on how to use fertiliser, watering techniques, among others.

In Rhamna, a region suffering from severe drought, UMP6 has helped farmers transition to a high-yield crop production that is resilient in the face of climate change. So far, Morocco has been in the forefront of technology use in agriculture. Images and data obtained from drones and satellites are combined in agricultural area and crop planning to help create a productive, profitable and sustainable sector.

Organisations are investing in the research of small-unmanned aerial vehicles-drones to make them easier to use in farming business. Moroccan-based precision agriculture services platform and digital marketplace for agro-products, AgriEdge, is leveraging satellite data and cutting-edge technologies to boost yield and reduce operational cost for small-large holder farmers in Africa.

AgriEdge incubated at UMP6, leverages geospatial technology to provide crop yield prediction and estimation service using satellite images.

To  feed the world’s ever-growing population, Agricorp Chief Executive Kenneth Obiajulu believes farmers deserve all the help they can get.

For agriculture to prosper, he believes building a modern ecosystem is important, and technological platforms can enable farmers to confidently increase yields.

With modern platforms, smart farming technology, including drone and satellite imaging, he sees farmers leapfrogging into modern, highly efficient techniques.

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